The Rights of the World's Poor
By Bryan Caplan
Over at Cato Unbound, philosopher Nicole Hassoun prompted me to sketch the main argument I plan to make in Part II of Poverty: Who To Blame. Namely: We should view people in the Third World as victims of First World immigration policy, not charity chases.
I begin by pointing out that if Americans actively stole food from Haitians, taxed them, or imposed a naval blockade, almost everyone would morally blame Americans for Haitian poverty. My next move:
Now consider a slightly different policy:
4. The U.S. government forbids trade between Americans and Haitians.
Such a policy would elicit less moral condemnation than [a naval blockade]. But how
different are [a naval blockade] and #4, really? In both cases, the U.S. government
violates Haitians’ (and Americans’) right to trade their stuff with
willing partners. American X wants to buy a painting from Haitian Y,
yet the U.S. government brands them as criminals. If, as a result, Y
dies of hunger, there is every reason to say that the U.S. government
killed Y by violating his negative rights.
This is not idle philosophizing:
You might object that, in the post-colonial era, these hypotheticals
are irrelevant for global poverty. Isn’t the entire problem that the
world’s poor have little of value to sell on the world market? The
answer, surprisingly, is no. The world’s poor have a very valuable good
to sell: their labor. Though Third World workers often earn a dollar
or two a day, even unskilled labor is worth $10-$15,000 per year on the
There’s just one problem: First World governments’ immigration
policies effectively forbid international trade in labor. The
world’s poor cannot legally work in a First World country without that
government’s permission. For most current residents of the Third World,
this permission is almost impossible to obtain.
If First World governments simply respected everyone’s right to
accept job offers from willing employers, most of the world’s poor
wouldn’t need charity. They could take care of themselves.
Any able-bodied person living in poverty would be free to sell his labor
to the highest bidder in the world. Instead of paying years of income
to coyotes, the global poor could migrate for the cost of a bus or boat
ticket. Instead of crossing the border in fear to compete for illegal
jobs, the global poor could cross the border openly to compete for any
job they’re qualified to do.
I go on to argue that people like Hassoun who appeal to positive rights are doing the global poor a disservice. “You’re aggressing against total stranger X, so stop” is a much stronger moral argument that “Total stranger X needs lots of help, and you’re morally obliged to help total strangers if they’re needy, so donate lots of money.”
One point I didn’t make, but could have: In the real world, positive rights are a major rationale for disrespecting the negative rights of poor foreigners. Philosophers may be convinced that all people have a positive right to a decent standard of living. But most non-philosophers can only be convinced that fellow citizens have this right.* As a result, non-philosophers often self-righteously violate foreigners’ negative rights in order to fulfill their perceived moral obligation to take care of their fellow citizens.
* To be more precise, most non-philosophers can only be convinced that citizens of country X are morally required to provide a decent standard of living for fellow citizens of X. Frenchmen are obliged to give all Frenchmen a decent standard of living, Americans are obliged to give all Americans a decent standard of living, etc.